Kevin McStay: Croke Park still a huge advantage to Dublin

My feeling now is that there will be no more shocks coming from the provinces

Remarkably, Laois have never played Dublin in Laois. Photograph: Inpho

Remarkably, Laois have never played Dublin in Laois. Photograph: Inpho

 

I watched Laois warming up to play Dublin in Croke Park on Sunday lunchtime and began to think of my own time managing Roscommon. And I wondered about the Laois mindset all week. It must be surreal to be preparing to play Dublin in Croke Park in the Leinster championship in this era.

Deep down you know that defeat is going to be your lot. That reality pops into your brain no matter how often you try to convince yourself or your players otherwise. Teams know they don’t have the stuff to live with Dublin. The recent cliché about Dublin used to be that the game was over by half time. But now the game is busted by the first water break, in many instances.

I played for a team that never won an All-Ireland. But I never prepared for a game with Mayo that I didn’t believe we could win. Now, we lost lots. But that’s not to say we didn’t believe. Whether it was Dublin or Tyrone or Cork, you might be the underdog but you had some belief, however irrational, that you could win it. I think that mindset was true of many teams from the 1960s through to 2010 in Leinster. Don’t tell me that Meath or Kildare or Offaly teams didn’t believe they could rattle Dublin.

That faith has been diluted now by the crushing defeats Dublin have been serving up for almost two decades in the province. They have won 14 of the last 15 Leinster titles, remember. What has that done to the morale of an entire generation of players in all other competing Leinster counties?

So the physical and mental challenge of preparing to play Dublin must be daunting. They have become the ultimate challenge. They have 15-plus really good footballers - and then their superstars. Most county teams have a handful of excellent footballers. Their strength and conditioning is of the very highest standard.

Con O’Callaghan. Brian Howard, Niall Scully: look at the physical transformation those players underwent in the last two or three years. Then you look at their playing statistics. Their possession percentage, tackles made, kickouts, scoring chances, steals (good) and turnovers (bad: a turnover, remember, is when a player turns the ball over) all habitually place them number one in the charts. And we won’t even get into their winning mentality and habit here.

So you are Michael Quirke and Laois and getting ready to face this tornado. The task is beyond immense. I met a Laois man before the game and he told me something interesting. It was the 35th meeting of Laois and Dublin in the championship going back to the 1890s. And here is the funny, and significant, thing: Laois have YET TO PLAY DUBLIN IN LAOIS. As he said, who can help us when we won’t help ourselves? And it is a fair point.

This is an old issue but it’s clear that Croke Park is a huge advantage to Dublin. It is beyond me why their regular opponents - the likes of Mayo and Kerry and Tyrone and teams who play in Croke Park don’t kick up a stink about this. Until they do, nothing will change.

When I was with Roscommon, we played Dublin twice in Croke Park. We knew that we would be beaten in those games. I’m not afraid to admit that. To pretend otherwise would have been foolish and delusional. We didn’t have the experience, the squad depth or the strength and conditioning to beat them. So as a manager, you have a dilemma: is it damaged limitation or do you go in eyes wide open?

We got hockeyed. In the Division 1 game in 2017, they set a record of their 35th competitive league and championship win in-a-row. The final score that night was 2-29 to 0-14. But we created seven goal chances. We didn’t take any of them but we discovered we had the potential to create them against the best team in the land. We tried to play positive football and get something out of the match other than just stick 15 men behind the ball. And three months later we were Connacht champions.

Eoghan O’Gara scores a goal past Roscommon’s James Fetherston in 2018. File photograph: Inpho
Eoghan O’Gara scores a goal past Roscommon’s James Fetherston in 2018. File photograph: Inpho

A year later, we met them in the Super 8s. It was a dead rubber game. The scoreline that day was 4-27 to 2-16. We got battered by the critics! But it was the biggest score any team put up against Dublin in their four-in-a-row year. We had a cut. We did some positive things with the football. We were learning all the time. It was a tough experience. But a year later, under Anthony Cunningham, Roscommon were Connacht champions again.

The point is: you have two choices against Dublin. You huddle in the trench or you go out into no man’s land. What is your ambition? To avoid embarrassment or to save your ego? Or to try and see what you can do about them? The team meetings are stark before those games. You are bracing yourself for an extremely arduous assignment. And I think the ultimate question is: what can this exercise do for your team?

I thought Mike Quirke was interesting in his reflections on the game. Laois wanted more out of the game but because they couldn’t get a structure going, they ended up finishing with 0-7 on the scoreboard. It became a relentlessly punishing cycle of tackling and digging in and restarting and getting turned over.

Now Meath face into the Dublin tornado.

Meath know they are improving. Their semi-final against Kildare was a real intense local and finely-balanced border rivalry. Both teams would have been adamant in their minds that they would win. But did Meath’s Division One experience help them? I think so. Yes, they got relegated. But they put in some fine performances and they became hardened.

My feeling now is that there will be no more shocks coming from the provinces. Things have flattened out

Yesterday brought home for me the key difference between the top, top teams and the chasing pack. I think this is where James Horan and Jim McGuinness and these innovative coaches demand huge application from their players. At the highest level of the game the basic skillsets - two hands and two feet - have to be a given.

For instance, Paddy Brophy, a very exciting player for Kildare, got into a great position in the first half coming in from the Cusask Stand to the Canal End. Paddy threw the cover but the angle was tight so he elected to handpass the ball over the bar with his left hand. However, he didn’t get the requisite power on the ball. Early in the second half Kildare’s number seven, Kevin Flynn, made a great run towards the Hill goal, again from the Cusack side. And he also elected to punch it over the bar but the fistpass was weak and short and was caught by a Meath player.

Fifteen seconds later Meath walloped home a goal at the other end. To me, these are the things that the very top teams, led by Dublin, execute automatically.

I believe Meath have some very fine players right around the pitch and the gap between them and Dublin has narrowed. They will give a positive account of themselves. But the challenge for Meath now this week is to commit to how they want to play. And to ask: what can we get out of this game? They are an improving team and should bounce back out of Division 2. But the cold reality is that their All-Ireland championship interest ends next weekend when they meet Dublin. It’s what they take from that occasion that is important.

I raced home from Croke Park to watch Mayo and Galway. I knew the result but I still love watching the tape back and picking up on the key plays.

To me, there are a few absolute strands in the modern game. There is the deep defence with a bulwark around the 45- and maybe plus 10 metres if you are feeling brave enough. There is the importance of restarts and the ability to kick short or long is critical because it dictates possession. But then there is also this word again: steals.

The ability to steal the ball off the opposition and then transition at speed is becoming an aspect through which teams get a significant number of their scores. I want to dwell on one number which shows us why Mayo won on Sunday - and why they still have it all to do this winter. The source for this is Johnny Bradley, the statistician with RTE Sport.

Eleven of Mayo’s 14 points came from steals. So where are the scores from their own creativity?

Now, Mayo are terrific at generating those dispossessions through work rate and athleticism. But my feeling is they are still not accurate enough in front of goal. It is Mayo’s Achilles heel. Against Galway, Mayo had 38 attacks and 29 shots and only 14 scores. That is a 48 percent conversion rate. So every time they shoot a score, they will, on average, miss on their next. Profligate shooting is a very old problem in Mayo’s football tradition. It is time to figure out why that is.

My theory is that in Mayo we don’t respect possession enough. Why? Because a lot of Mayo teams are populated by centre fielders - big strong, men who are raised in the belief that they can and will win the next ball. It leads to the notion among the forwards that: ah, we can get another chance easily enough.

Go back to Willie Joe Padden or Liam McHale and TJ Kilgallon and you get a picture of the proto-type Mayo midfielder: born ball-winners who will serve up a feast of possession for their forwards.

But that is a dangerous notion in the modern game. Because you won’t get the ball back on the kick out. Galway illustrated that for Mayo on Sunday.

Now go back to Dublin. They are not profligate in front of goal. They loathe wastefulness. The pot shots are gone. Their scores are all about embroidered approach work and high percentage popped over from in and around the arc. So can Mayo rely on steals to generate the bulk of their scoring? Or can they create more good chances against a set defence now that they move to Croke Park?

My feeling now is that there will be no more shocks coming from the provinces. Things have flattened out. Many expect the last four to be Cork and Mayo and Donegal and Dublin. Of course, flipping that expectation will generate all the energy in the training sessions for Tipperary and Cavan and Meath this week.

Those three counties have done extremely well to reach the stage where they are among just seven teams who can win the All-Ireland football championship now. But they are entering a different realm of opposition.

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